Times are rough right now under self-quarantine, so maybe it’s time to stop begging for scraps and watch some fantastic LGBTQ cinema instead. Why not watch some smaller films that haven’t been talked to death by every pop culture website on the planet?
The purpose of this list is to cheer people up, especially during a time when people really can’t go out and decompress. All we can do right now is curl up under our blankets with a libation or two and try to forget our troubles by streaming movies nonstop.
Queer cinema is not a monolith, but I do prefer to prioritize the films that depict queer life as it is. This is a list big on laughs, keeping the sadness to a minimum. There are some recognizable titles in here, mixed in with lesser-known gems that deserve public attention. Luckily, film critics are here to do the digging for you. All you have to do is add them to your queue.
There’s a lot of hype around Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature, but it’s all warranted. The acting is incredible. The colors are vibrant and alive. It’s three stars (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) are equally talented at portraying a Southern Black gay man from childhood to adulthood. Though the film is somber, its ending has such profound beauty and hope. If you’ve been avoiding it because you see it as a standard Oscar-winning weepie, reconsider.
This one is a little sad, but its perspective is fascinating. “Concussion” presents an image of upper middle class lesbian life that feels casual and real. When Abby’s son accidentally hits her in the head with a baseball, the resulting concussion leads her to reassess her life. She begins working as a high-end escort, hosting her clients in a renovated loft she’s supposed to be selling. The fun and intimacy of her interactions with clientele are thoughtfully contrasted with the coldness, sexless nature of her marriage. Though the ending is bittersweet, the journey is so much fun, with a candidness about the emotional component essential to sex work.
"Paris Is Burning"
This iconic documentary showcasing the roots of ballroom culture is a classic for a reason. It is one of the earliest documentaries to highlight the joy of queer life as well as the inherent diversity of the LGBTQIA+ community. Now, we have the fantastic television series “Pose.” But for a while, “Paris is Burning” was the best game in town, and for good reason.
This slice-of-life film showcases two trans women of color as they navigate work and relationship issues. The film’s realistic visual style is achieved by director Sean Baker shooting the film on iPhones. Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) finds out her boyfriend has been cheating on her the day she gets released from prison. Her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) has her own problems, and a singing performance to prepare for that night. The journey they go on together is bittersweet, but it settles into brilliant moments of beauty and tenderness.
It’s lovely when a queer coming-of-age film depicts the joy of sexual discovery. “Princess Cyd” begins with tragedy, the rest of the story is bright and soaked in sun. It’s a film about the triumphs of surviving, overcoming pain and moving on to a better time. In a just world, this film would have been up for all the major film awards.
Yes, it’s another documentary about ballroom culture that centers queer people of color. This one is from 2016, taking place two and a half decades after “Paris is Burning.“ In a time where drag and ball culture have been co-opted by the predominantly white and straight popular culture, it’s important to remember the marginalized communities who are setting the trends that the public later follows.
"Naz & Maalik"
In Jay Dockendorf’s debut feature, two young Black Muslim teens are dating in secret, saving their passion for stolen moments. The camera lingers on the beauty of its two leads, framing their faces with focus on their expressive eyes. Their secret relationship is further complicated by an persistent FBI agent who profiles them for their race and faith. This kind of story could easily get broad, but Dockendorf grounds the narrative in its characters and the daily details of Muslim life.
Other recommendations: “The Duke of Burgundy,” “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” “Margarita with a Straw,” “Vita & Virginia”
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"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
In a time where writers are being laid off en-masse by a media industry that devalues their talent, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a period piece that feels frighteningly current. Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a biographer who fell on hard times in the ’90s and began to make a living forging the letters of famous writers, including Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. Her forgery is used to fund simple needs — rent, taking care of her cat, and being able to afford to date again. This high-concept true story is tempered by Lee’s relatability as a tired, marginalized, disillusioned lesbian creative in a literary society that rejects her. Her experience is timeless.
Dee Rees is one of the greatest gay filmmakers working right now. In a just world, her sophomore film “Bessie” would have set a new standard for the Hollywood biopic. Rees tells the story of legendary singer Bessie Smith as one of queer exploration, with Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) acting as butch mentor to the titular star, played the amazing Queen Latifah. Though Latifah is known mainly for her comedy work, her performance as Bessie Smith is an Oscar-worthy mix of attitude and heartbreaking anguish.
"But I’m a Cheerleader"
Queer comedies tend to get lost in the shuffle during discussions of great LGBTQIA+ cinema. Some classic, underrated gay comedies that come to mind include “The Broken Heart’s Club: A Romantic Comedy,” “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,” 1998’s “Get Real’ and of course the 1999 cult classic “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Director Jamie Babbit’s debut feature took its cues from John Waters, poking fun at American culture’s obsession with its conservative past, gender roles and suburban middle-class values. Bonus: Star Natasha Lyonne and lesbian icon Clea DuVall have genuine chemistry.
Todd Haynes’ sixth feature is just as sensual and visually arresting as his 1991 debut “Poison” (also available to stream). “Carol” is an erotic film characterized by meaningful glances and small tokens of affection. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), two star-crossed lovers constrained by a homophobic and patriarchal society. Haynes stays true to the details of the time period while also leaving room in the corners for blunt displays of lesbian pleasure.
Desiree Akhavan adds some much-needed color into the contemporary microbudget cinema landscape with her debut feature “Appropriate Behavior,” telling the story of a young woman whose life is upended when her relationship ends. Adding on to all that, her parents don’t know she’s bisexual and she has no idea how to tell them. Hijinks ensue, with Akhavan (who also plays the lead) letting situational comedy take center stage. Her humor gets more space to breathe in her subsequent Hulu original series “The Bisexual,” which is just as delightful. Also streaming on Hulu is her first foray into dramatic storytelling, with the raw and emotional Chloe Grace Moretz vehicle “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”
"Keep the Lights On"
Of all the films on this list, Ira Sachs’ 2012 drama feature is probably the saddest. It chronicles the tumultuous relationship between Erik, a Danish-American documentary filmmaker, and his lawyer boyfriend Paul. They meet in 1998, and they continue on and off for the next eight years. During that time Erik struggles with completing a documentary and Paul battles with drug addiction. The film is punctuated by their explosive fights, which explode with passion and organic physicality. “Keep the Lights On” is a rich, emotionally satisfying film.
"The Watermelon Woman"
This ’90s indie comedy, which has recently been re-released by the Criterion Collection, is an important part of Black film history. Director Cheryl Dunye was the first known Black lesbian to direct a feature film. She also stars in the film, as a young filmmaker trying to track down details about a mysterious Black actress who played “Mammy” characters in early Hollywood cinema, Her search mirrors the search of many young Black queer women trying to uncover their history in a society that sidelines their stories. “The Watermelon Woman” is funny, thoughtful and essential.
Much like some of the other films on this list, Carly Usdin and Brittani Nichols’s 2016 dark comedy approach to queerness is refreshingly casual. The focus of this comedy is suicide, but with a touch so light that there’s still plenty of joy to be found in the film’s dry humor. A lesbian couple finds a hidden suicide note in their friend’s house and fret about what to do. The high-concept plot feels like the beginning of a sitcom, but that’s why it works so well.
"Happy Birthday, Marsha!"
In a time when we have been made most aware of the plight of Black trans women around the world, it’s important to look back on our queer elders. Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson played a pivotal role in the 1969 Stonewall riots. Her legacy has been ignored and minimized in white-centric queer narratives like Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall,” but in recent years, trans activists have finally gotten the media to say her name and recognize her life and work. “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” is an analog dreamscape where gifted Black trans actress Mya Taylor (“Tangerine”) channels Marsha P. Johnson, imagining her life on the day leading up to the historic riots that were the birth of Gay Pride. It’s a very short film with a long-lasting impact.